For Christians, all of the High Holy days in our calendar ought to be cause for deep reflection and examination of our individual and corporate condition. Pentecost is no exception, and though the second Sunday of June may already be fading in our memories, the implications Pentecost has for our corporate lives should linger with us still.
The story of the descent of the Holy Spirit as related in Acts 2 is one of the most seemingly fantastic in all of New Testament scripture. In more ways than one, it challenges the rational mind to grasp how such a thing could happen, especially in this age when science has developed the capacity to critique every aspect of lived human experience. For the systematic theologian slumbering in all of us, it is a wake-up call that beckons us to account for the lasting power that it had on the early church.
Pentecost was more than just an extraordinary event that happened at nine o’clock in the morning. It represented what some have referred to as an “in-breaking” of God’s divine presence directly onto the plane of human existence in a way that should have been unmistakable, even to the skeptics who suggested that the Feast of Weeks celebrants had started drinking rather early. What the book of Acts makes clear is that Pentecost had a prevailing power – in the most direct sense of the word – on the people of the Way, who would later be called “Christians” at Antioch.
“To prevail is a mighty thing. And so, too, is Pentecost.”
The word “prevail” is a verb, which means that we must recognize it as a word that emphasizes action. To speak of someone or something as prevailing is to suggest that there is movement going on; there is dramatic activity taking place. To prevail is to “prove more powerful than opposing forces,” it is to win, to triumph, to conquer, to overcome. If a particular set of circumstances or conditions prevails – crisis or chaos, peace or prosperity, conflict or tension, fellowship and joy – then it means that they are widespread, that they abound, that they are in full force and effect.
If you are speaking in terms of a discussion, debate or argument in the realm of politics or public policy, or even a dialogue between two people of great influence or privileged position, then the one who “prevails” is the one who persuades and convinces the other to change their way of thinking about the subject at hand.
To prevail is a mighty thing. And so, too, is Pentecost.
I had the privilege during the first week of June to attend the 105th meeting of the Hampton University Minister’s Conference. This year’s theme was “A Call to the Church from a Community in Crisis.” We are all painfully aware of the crises that are besetting us: chaos and corruption in Washington, ongoing violence in so many of our neighborhoods, saber-rattling with Iran and trade wars on the international scene, and divisive debates over doctrine and theology in the institutional church that are causing it to move steadily towards permanent schism.
What became clear to me over the course of the week is that we will not be able to solve any of these crises solely with these two hands. Instead, what we desperately need is for Pentecost to prevail over circumstances and situations; we need the Holy Spirit to win out, to triumph, to conquer them, to overcome them. We need a movement of God on this earthly plane. We need some divinely dramatic activity to take place.
“When Pentecost prevails, it changes things and it changes people. What once was only imagined suddenly becomes real, and that which was before is no more.”
We need God’s very essence and being to persuade those in power – not just in Washington, but well beyond – to see the work that they do through God’s eyes, to adopt and embrace God’s view of things, and then to make it happen in the legislation they produce, the policies they enact and the initiatives they advance.
When Pentecost happened 2,000 years ago, Peter preached with such persuasive power that people who thought they knew God realized that they did not know God and needed to repent. He preached with such expository excellence that 3,000 people were converted. And, most importantly of all, he preached with such prevailing power that people started acting differently than they did before.
When Pentecost prevails, it changes things and it changes people. What once was only imagined suddenly becomes real, and that which was before is no more.
The closing verses of Acts 2 declare that “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.” The story of Pentecost reveals that the Holy Spirit has socialist tendencies. At least, this is the only way that we can really understand its radical implications within the simplistic confines of the economic models that we have come up with for figuring out how to ration out that which God always intended to be shared by all of us in a spirit of mutuality and abundance.
Commentators have debated for years about Acts 2 – 5 and whether or not those chapters justify an argument for Christian Socialism. I think the debates miss the point, to a great extent, and ultimately reduce the transcendent potency of the Holy Spirit down to a simple matter of ideology. That’s not good enough. When Pentecost prevails, there will be a shifting in the atmosphere that will turn the world upside down.
We would likely struggle to describe it in human terms, and at best might classify it as a paradigm shift. I don’t know if even that concept would be adequate, but what I do know is this: The status quo as we know it is not sustainable. Something has to change, and I pray that it will – in radical ways – when Pentecost prevails.